In the tech sector, India has not been known for innovation, and has historically always sold itself on its low cost software development and business process outsourcing. From a manufacturing point of view, it also had an ambition to be a manufacturing hub, but that often meant low cost manufacturing and assembly for imported kits and components. It has never really been able to shake off its image as a place for cheap software and manufacturing.
However, last month (February 2016), many forces seem to have come together to help change that image in a big way. First there was the ‘Make in India Week’ heavily promoting India as a base to manufacture, with captains of industry insisting it should be based on technology and innovation rather than just bringing in low cost manufacturing from other parts of Asia. And then at the Surge conference in Bangalore, we saw announcements from government to fund an innovation mission, and an Indian company launch a new electric scooter designed in India that will also be made in India.
‘Make in India’ needs to be more than cheap manufacturing
During Make in India Week, Indian industry leaders Kumar Mangalam Birla and Anand Mahindra said this should involve bringing in new technology and digitization to the manufacturing sector rather than simply relying on cheap labour to make Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision successful.
Anand Mahindra, chairman of the Mahindra Group, said, “There will be a migration of large-scale low cost factories from China to India. But that shouldn’t be the only kind of manufacturing that India does.” He added, “Manufacturing should be democratized, digitized and decentralized.”
In addition, Kumar Mangalam Birla is reported to have said that to assume India is not innovative enough is wrong but added that India is highly dependent on western companies for fundamental research, something that needs to change. “India has a track record of setting up world-class cement, textile factories and oil refineries. We have to take India to the next level,” he said. “New skills such as use of algorithms, remote sensing must be used in manufacturing to remain constantly contemporary.”
This demands the creation of an innovation ecosystem to make it work. According to the Indian Express, ‘the need of the hour is to harness technology and foster innovation for creating a centre of excellence for manufacturing and services’. For this to happen, India industry needs progressive development through advancement in education including research and development (R&D); sustained technological development; and a mechanism to protect intellectual property, to safeguard the rights and interests of technology creators and providers.
The government’s innovation mission
The Surge conference in Bangalore saw enthusiasm in leaps and bounds from the tech startup ecosystem in India. Over 5,000 people from 72 countries attended the conference, and this included 433 startups exhibiting to try and attract investment or build traction. In addition there were many startups simply taking part as attendees, ready to pitch to investors from India, Europe, USA and Asia.
There were startups for everything – from medtech to edtech, fashion to fintech and food, plus logistics, IoT, robotics, apps for social good and many more. India is a place where there are many ideas and no shortage of people ready to try out their ideas in a country where ‘doing a startup’ has become the trend in the country, and for the successful ones there’s a potential domestic market of hundreds of millions of people.
It’s no surprise then that the government used the buzz of the conference to announce its commitment to innovation. Binod Bawri of the Atal Innovation Mission said that the government fully understands that innovation is necessary, and wealth creation requires appropriate use of technology and innovation.
The mission will support innovation, and in the next few months 10 grand challenges will be announced especially related to villages. Within these challenges, government will support startups, and help to create new enterprises, worth US$300-500billion in the next five years. To enable this, it will help startup by making laws easier, making registration simpler, and enabling them to register patents more easily.
The electric scooter innovation for India
Also at the Surge conference, Ather Energy, an Indian hardware start-up founded in 2013, launched what it calls a ‘new benchmark in automotive technology’. It unveiled India’s first smart, electric, ‘connected’ scooter, the S340, which features a powerful lithium ion battery pack, top speed of 72 kph and a range up to 60km.
“The future will be connected and inevitably electric and the Ather S340 has been built as a manifestation of this philosophy,” said Tarun Mehta, CEO & co-founder. “It is an unapologetically electric vehicle, it has been designed and built mostly in-house with engineering precision.”
He claims it is one of the pioneers of smart scooters. The touchscreen dashboard integrates cloud based data to help personalize the consumer ride experience. Its integration with a mobile app keeps the rider connected with the vehicle, and predictive analytics and aggregation of ride statistics enable customized route recommendations. As more vehicles go in-field, aggregate rider and vehicle data will help in customized vehicle updates that will be delivered automatically over the air.
Mehta adds, “Intelligent vehicles will revolutionize our commute experience in future and we have just begun that journey.” He says the automobile industry is in the midst of a huge technological disruption, and the electric vehicle will shape urban commute and the smart cities of tomorrow.
The company stays true to the ‘made in India’ mission, with a manufacturing unit in Bangalore. It will also revolutionize the distribution model it says – with no dealers, but its own customer experience centres and online only purchasing. The company also aims to set up an ambitious public charging infrastructure in every city it will operate in, partnering with government and private enterprises.
In a country not known for creating innovative and disruptive products, the whole ecosystem around the electric scooter launch appears to demonstrate that India’s new generation now has the ambition that will help change the country’s image. This enthusiasm evident among the hundreds of startups at the Bangalore conference coupled with government efforts for ‘made in India’ products and its drive to support innovation seem to suggest a new phase in the growth of India’s technology industry and for indigenous innovation and manufacturing.
[Image: the electric scooter from Ather Energy is an example of a new generation of innovative products designed and made in India]